If hell has mountains, they must look like the Northern Rockies. As my fire spotter and I fly an insignificantly small airplane over our territory in western Montana, we weave through brown tendrils of wind-shredded smoke that curl around granite peaks.
Sudden explosions of dark ash rise into the air above stands of trees as they torch with flame. Blackened rings of incinerated dog-hair timber stand out like pockmarks on once-verdant slopes. A suffocating layer of haze hangs over the scene, extending over 11,000 feet above sea level into the weak blue sky.
Montana’s Big Sky Country shrank this summer to a visible radius of less than three miles — in some places less than a half-mile. We circle and dip low over the bleak landscape, straining to see any new fires that may be brewing beneath us. Our plane is wrapped in a cotton cocoon the color of a used cigarette filter. I have no visible horizon to help me keep the “shiny side up, the rubber side down.” This has become a stressful job, in spite of my love of flying.
This year’s fire season began early for our state, before the middle of July. My spotter and I were asked to fly every day from the second week in July into (so far) the second week of September.
Exhaustion set in long ago. On July 12, an enormous thunderstorm passed through Idaho and western Montana, igniting over 300 fires with strike after eye-blinding strike of lightning. The day after the storm, we flew for six hours, combing our territory for “smokes.” There was no shortage of sightings. By the time the day ended, the dispatchers were so tired, they were laughing with each new location we called in on the radio. They couldn’t assign fire numbers fast enough, and suppression equipment had long since been depleted.
Every smokejumper had been deployed from the base, every helicopter commandeered, and every fire engine for hundreds of miles rushed into service. Retardant bombers were lumbering off runways throughout the area, dropping their fire-quenching loads and returning for more.
Laughter stopped the next day. With superhuman effort, hotshot and fire aviation crews held most of the fires to less than a few acres, but the blazes that got a good start took off and ran. Over 500,000 acres are now on fire in western Montana, and though the pace has slowed a little in the past week after one small cooling rain, there is still no wrapup in sight.
Locals hack and cough their way through air quality that rates from marginal to a serious health risk. Outdoor activities have ceased. The woods are closed to loggers, fishermen, hunters, hikers, campers, even river rafters. We hang on every word the weatherman utters, hoping for some relief from the hot, dry days plagued by inversions.
Residents of many small enclaves in the forest were evacuated when wildfire threatened their homes. Some of those homes were destroyed outright by flames; others are no longer surrounded by the lush green beauty that drew their owners to the mountains.
President Bush’s administration is pushing for thinning of the national forests to help prevent wildfire seasons like this one. As we flew over a particularly dense area of forest last week, my spotter commented, “Maybe George should be set down in that with a chainsaw to see how fast it can be thinned.” The task would be monumental. This expanse of trees is not even a speck on the map of all our federal holdings. We see from the air that logged areas, thinned areas and virgin timber all burn with equal ferocity when drought, lightning and wind combine.
Though homeowners are learning how to create clear defensible space around their forest dwellings, and forest-fuel reduction through prescribed burns around the “wildland-urban interface” has helped save some communities, there will never be a guarantee of safety.
Sometimes the homeowner’s lesson is taught by firefighters working in the swirl of embers preceding a firestorm. Occasionally, a prescribed burn flares out of control and destroys more than what was planned. In either case, the home may become an island surrounded by a hundred square miles of burnt sticks. Yet, in spite of the risks, people continue to build in the forests.
That leaves it to those of us who work in the fire business, from the hotshot “grunt” scraping a fireline bare, to the air attack officer flying above an inferno to direct the battle, to do the best we can.
Wendy Beye lives in Hamilton, Montana.